The crowds were gone — that was the first thing you noticed at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Normally, over the course of the 10 days that this annual gathering of film lovers and lookie-loos runs, you’ll find throngs of people outside the Princess of Wales Theatre or the Roy Thomson Hall, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever movie star is working the red carpet. The lines of ticketholders that snake around the block were M.I.A. You could see tumbleweeds blow through the usually bustling lobbies of the Scotiabank multiplex and the boutique-like Bell Lightbox. There was a “Midnight Madness” sidebar, but no raucous midnight screenings at the Ryerson. There was some press, but no press room. Screenings were at half-capacity; so were the once-packed downtown streets on a Saturday night. It was a little like attending a gala party in a ghost town.

But if this year’s TIFF felt a little like a quieter, more modest version of the circus that comes to this Canadian metropolis every September, it still felt like a film festival, where you could get a sense of where the awards-season wind was blowing and continue to find discoveries lurking among the bigger titles. At this point, even the staunchest cinephile has tired of counting the ways they’ve missed the thrill of sitting in the dark with strangers, watching shadows on a wall. (It’s a truth near-universally acknowledged that the pleasure of the theatrical experience is a big reason why the movies have kept their allure for so damned long.) And yet, to be at an in-person festival again and to take in so much of what the medium offers — a global sample platter of comedies, dramas, docs, experimental work and several “file under uncategorizable” entries — was to experience an adrenaline rush that felt achingly familiar.

Here are 10 of the best things we caught at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, from a heartfelt memory piece from a well-known actor-director to a Japanese three-and-a-half-hour exploration of theater and trauma to an African drama about woman’s rights. (Shout-outs are also in order for the companion-piece documentaries Attica and Hold Your Fire, the controversial Alanis Morrisette portrait Jagged and the Afro-sonic avant-musical Neptune Frost.)

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Ali & Ava
He’s a British-Pakistani landlord and diehard music lover who still dreams of being a D.J. She’s an Irish widow living in Yorkshire who works as a teacher — “a classroom assistant,” technically — trying to raise two kids. Romance isn’t exactly the first thing on either of their minds, and both carry a lot of baggage from previous relationships. Yet this affectionate look at love in a northern England working-class community, courtesy of filmmaker Clio Barnard (The Arbor), is generous enough to give these people a chance at happiness despite the odds stacked against them. Miserablism isn’t on the menu, though the film doesn’t play down the external problems each character faces in their day-to-day existence either. And you couldn’t ask for a better showcase for Adeel Akhtar and Claire Westbrook, two veteran British character actors who get the spotlight they deserve here.

Rob Youngson

Belfast
It’s 1969, sectarian violence is raging in North Ireland, and 10-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) is watching his neighborhood literally go up in flames. His grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Dame Judi Dench) offer kindness and counsel as he tries to negotiate a childhood interrupted by social tension, soldiers and uprisings. His parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) know that the only way forward is out. Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white drama doesn’t just take on the Troubles in a way that feels personal — his semi-autobiographical memory piece is the strongest movie he’s made in decades, with an incredible feel for viewing history through the innocent eyes of a kid and the hard-won wisdom of an adult revisiting a pivotal moment in his past. Don’t look back in anger, indeed.

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Benediction
Even by the high standards of Terence Davies’ impressive body of work, this biopic of WWI veteran and poet Siegfried Sassoon stand out as something unique in the filmmaker’s 45-year career: a seamless blend of historical drama, literary memoir, queer desire, quiet passion and raging anger at the senseless loss of an entire generation of men. The acting is first-rate (especially Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi as younger/older versions of Sassoon, and Ben Daniels as a sympathetic doctor). The wit is scathing, even as tragedy hovers constantly in the background — imagine The Guns of August rewritten by Oscar Wilde. And the final shot, in which a lifetime’s worth of sorrow and trauma suddenly hit with the hurricane, will knock the wind out of you.

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Compartment No. 6
The co-winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes (it shared the runner-up award with Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, which was also at TIFF), Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen’s road movie pairs a heartbroken student (Seidi Haarla) and a boorish Russian knucklehead (Yuriy Borisov) as they share a tiny train compartment. She’s heading to Murmansk, located near the Arctic Circle, to see some ancient cave paintings. He’s going nowhere, fast. Thanks to circumstance, vodka and some unexpected detours, these two traveling companions slowly come around to enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. A low-key gem, and one that recasts Desireless’ “Voyage Voyage” as the perfect pop-existentialist soundtrack cut.

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Drive My Car
Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) returns with yet another marathon-length masterpiece — a three-hour-plus adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story about a theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) staging an international, multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. The gentleman has a storied history with the play as an actor, as well as a connection to one of the cast: a prettyboy television star (Masaki Okada) who once worked with the director’s wife. He’s also reluctantly assigned a driver, a young woman (Tôko Miura) with her own crosses to bear. The long scenes of actors poring through a dramatic text, and how the dynamics of the work began to reflect on the dynamics of its interpreters, initially brings to mind a less paranoid version of a Jacques Rivette movie. But Hamaguchi’s take on art, life, loss, healing and forgiveness is its own beast, and one of the richest, most rewarding examples of how to turn simple human interactions into compelling cinema.

Courtesy of TIFF

The Humans
Speaking of which: It might have been enough for director Stephen Karam to simply cast this screen version of his Tony-winning play — about a family gathering together for Thanksgiving dinner, and all the inherent anxiety that simple description implies — with well-known actors, film them speaking his wonderfully acidic dialogue and leave it at that. Instead, he turns this stage drama into an expressionistic, highly cinematic look at the ties that bind (and gag, and occasionally strangle), and drops you into the middle of a genuine nightmare. Beanie Feldstein and Steven Yeun are the young couple hosting the holiday gathering in their brand new downtown NYC apartment. Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Jayne Houdyshell (reprising her role from the Broadway production) and June Squibb are the guests who remind you that every family is dysfunctional in its own way … and, to drop another literary quote, that hell is other people. Karam referenced Ozu and Fassbinder as influences in his post-screening conversation, though he’s clearly taken a few pages from the Gotham horror-movie playbook as well. And it’s so literally dark that you’d swear cinematographer Lol Crawley was asking the late Gordon Willis to hold his beer.

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Lingui, The Sacred Bonds
A young woman (Rihane Khalil Alio) finds herself with child, and is cryptic about who the father may be. She wants an abortion — which, in her home country of Chad, is forbidden by law. Her mother (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), no stranger to unwanted pregnancies or the social-pariah status that comes with it, is determined to help her by any means necessary, even if that means being exiled from their community. It is, on the surface, a fairly simple story that the legendary filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (A Screaming Man) turns into a moral parable, a cri de coeur and a formalist wonder; the use of composition, color and pacing he employs here is virtually peerless. That he also manages to celebrate the sacred bonds of sisterhood among the women moving in and out of this story without sacrificing a sense of outrage at the situation they find themselves up against only makes it that much more impressive. My favorite movie at this year’s TIFF.

1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right

Montana Story
Set deep in the heart of Big Sky country, this dual character study from Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, What Maisie Knew) finds a young man (Owen Teague) returning home to say goodbye to his terminally ill father. There’s a lot of bad blood between the two of them, though that’s nothing compared to the toxic Type O that exists in regard to the patriarch and his daughter (Haley Lu Richardson). And when she reluctantly finds herself back on the ranch to pay her final respects, a lot of buried past gets excavated. This exactly the kind of non-showy, humanistic storytelling that you associate with a type of indie movie that’s been relegated to the sidelines over the last 10 years or so, and one that’s right in the McGehee/Siegel team’s sweet spot. They’ve always been a highly underrated directorial duo. It’s works like this, however, that demands that attention must be paid.

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Petite Maman
How do you follow up an international hit like Portrait of a Woman on Fire? You make an elliptical story about mothers and daughters — an answer that might not seem instinctual in the slightest unless you’re talking about Céline Sciamma. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is forced to watch her mother (Nina Meurisse) clean out her grandmother’s house after the elderly woman has passed on. The girl spends her days idly wandering around in the nearby forest, which is where she meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a fellow preadolescent girl who is practically the child’s double. Sciamma keeps this fairy-tale-like narrative on the cryptic side, though the answer to what’s really going on here is hidden in plain sight. It’s the movie’s takeaway that matters more than any twists, however: To paraphrase the old maxim, you never truly know anyone, even the people closest to you, until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right

The Worst Person in the World
Broken up into 10 chapters (with a prologue and an epilogue), Joachim Trier’s deep-dive into the world of a rootless, restless 30-year-old woman named Julie (Renate Reinsve, who won Best Actress at Cannes and, in a perfect world, would win an Oscar for this as well) is the film we’ve been waiting for this Norwegian writer-director to make for years — a reprise to his near-perfect 2006 debut Reprise. Unable to figure out what to do with her life and unwilling to grow up, Julie drifts from one professional and romantic fixation to another, bouncing around Oslo in an effort to pinpoint a path to her ideal future. An older graphic novelist (Anders Danielsen Lie, a.k.a. the De Niro to Trier’s Scorsese) offers her a chance at stability; a stranger (Herbert Nordrum) she meets at a wedding she impulsively crashes offers her excitement. An absolute blast of a movie, as insightful, empathetic and non-judgemental as its title is outrageous. Well played, Mr. Trier.

Film

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